A Gambeson Pattern for Byzantine Re-enactment

Peter Beatson (NVG Miklagard)


Introduction

I made this gambeson (Figure 1) in 1997. I designed it to go under armour, and with a seperate padded gorget I also wear it for combat archery [1]. I wanted to avoid weak spots and bulky seams under the armpits, so I came up with pointed side panels that fit into the arm seam to cover that area. That wasn’t inspired by any period sources - but more recently a description of an Early or Middle Byzantine shirt found in the Manazan Caves near Karaman, Turkey has been published [2] which has the same underarm construction! Just shows that good ideas don’t go out of fashion...


Figure 1- Gambeson. Front view, partially exploded.


Construction

I used a heavy handwoven Indian cotton (technically, a warp-faced tabby) for the outside layer, lighter cotton for the lining, and a double layer of removalist’s felt for padding (that's firm felt made of cotton waste, about 6 mm thick). Don’t release the authenticity hounds yet! Cotton (bambax) is frequently mentioned in tenth century Byzantine military manuals [3]. So might this quilted armour be called a bambakion? [4]. If you’re reenacting Western Europe, you might want to substitute linen- and wool- based materials though.

  1. Measure out identical outer and lining layers - see the cutting guide below (Figure 2). Add 2 cm allowances on all edges that will be joined together. There is no need to add allowances at hems if you are going to finish them with separate binding strips, but if you are ‘self’ edging them allow 3 cm or so depending on the thickness of your padding. Cut out and pin together lining pieces and check the fit - not too tight! Adjust measurements if needed, and cut outer fabric. If you're not going to fold under and finish the raw edges later, overlocking or zig-zagging them at this stage would be wise.

  2. Cut out padding layer(s), with no seam allowances. How thick should the padding be? That depends on whether its a ‘stand alone’ defence or just supplementing other armour [5].

  3. Glue all layers of each section together with spray adhesive [6] for fabric (craft shops). This keeps the ‘sandwich’ together while you’re quilting it.

  4. Quilting. I decided to quilt vertically, based on a 10th cent. Cappadocian fresco [7]. There are certainly other options though [8]. Quilting before assembling the garment is much easier! Quilt at 5 cm intervals or less, to keep your padding firmly in place. Note the sleeves are quilted lengthwise too, not across. Do the outer rows first, then the middle and then the intervening ones.

  5. Finish the wrists and neck. Again I find it easier to do this before the final assembly. You can ‘self-edge’ the wrists by folding the extra allowance of covering fabric to the inside and sewing it down, or use a seperate strip of the same fabric or a contrasting one. I roughly blanket-stitched the layers together at the cut edges to reduce bulkiness before covering them with binding strips.

  6. Assembly. Sew through covering layers only, not padding. Attach arms to body. Sew up ams from the wrist, inserting points of side panels before reaching the armpit. Continue, sewing side panels to body. Trim lower hem and ‘self-edge’ or bind it as above. Add ties to neck slit.


Figure 2 - Cutting guide for gambeson (measurements to suit person 180 cm tall weighing 75 kg).


Though this armour is a pullover design, it could easily be converted to a front opening coat style - the side panels might be widened slightly to give the necessary 5 cm overlap. A small standing collar could be added. The width of the body could be reduced and side panels increased to give a result like this recent Sudanese armour (arms would also have to be lengthened accordingly).


NOTES

[1] A pseudo-sport associated with medieval reenactment, something like paintball with bows and arrows. PB.

[2] Timothy Dawson (2003), ‘Concerning an unrecognised tunic from Eastern Anatolia’ Byzantion 73(1), p.201-210.

[3] Cotton used in cloth armours: Anon., Sylloge Taktikon, §38,4 and §39,1; Emperor Nikephoros Phokas (attrib.), Stratigike Ekthesis kai Syntaxis (‘Praecepta Militaria’), §1,3 and §3,4; Nikephoros Ouranos, Taktika, §56,3 and §60,4. Cotton among fibres to be stockpiled in a beseiged city: Anon., untitled (‘De Obsidione Toleranda’), §19. Ref - John Teall (1977), ‘Byzantine urbanism in the military handbooks’. In: H.A. Miskamin, D. Herlihy, and A.L. Udovitch (eds.) The Medieval City, Yale University: New Haven, p.201-205.

[4] Might it not! Does the bambakion actually exist? According to Heath, a bambakion is a padded coat with a hood, a theory taken up and repeated ever since. I have been unable to find a primary source that agrees with this. In ‘Praecepta Militaria’, both the kavadion (§1,3) and epilorikon (§3,4) can be made of cotton - for both the description includes “bambakion kai koukoulion”, which is translated by McGeer as “of cotton or coarse silk”. Kolias’ reading agrees with McGeer, and he notes koukoulion can mean cowl or hood - one wonders whether Heath read the same passages as ‘hood’ for ‘silk’, and a type of garment for ‘cotton fabric’? PB.
Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies 886-1118 (Man-at-Arms no.89), Osprey: London 1979. Eric McGeer, Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth, Dumbarton Oaks: Washington DC 1995. Taxiarchis Kolias, Byzantinische Waffen, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Vienna 1988.

[5] From the New Varangian Guard Inc. Combat Rules and Safety Standards (Australia, 1995-), section 2.4.0 ‘Gambeson’:


[6] Okay, now you can release the hounds. PB.

[7] Peter Raftos (2002), ‘Two representations of Byzantine quilted armour in the Tokali Kilise’ Varangian Voice 61, p.6-9.

[8] Timothy Dawson (2002), ‘Suntagma Hoplôn: the equipment of regular Byzantine troops, c.950 to c.1204’. In: D. Nicolle (ed.) Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Boydell: Woodbridge, p.81-90. In Central Europe there are a few crude depictions of warriors wearing a vertically striped garment in Baltic and Slavic artworks of the Viking age, and from the 12th century onward there are representations of any number of vertically quilted armours, the most celebrated collection being the Maciejowski Bible, French c.1250AD. See - Steven Baker (1997), ‘A survey of the cloth armours depicted in the Maciejowski Bible’ Varangian Voice 42, p.16-21. PB.




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